Stanislaus Military Academy prides itself on teaching students honor, respect and maturity. However, recently an almost ironic tension can be felt at the Turlock campus as some parents claim the school has dishonored the students by not holding staff up to the highest standards, while others believe some parents have merely overreacted to their strict code.
The military style school has come under fire from parents who claim the discipline practiced by staff is too harsh. The complaints have gained the attention of the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which oversees the school, and they have initiated an investigation into certain allegations. But school staff says that the tough teaching style promotes the SMA core values of discipline, respect, courage, commitment and honor.
“Stanislaus Military Academy may not be the perfect fit for every student,” said First Sergeant and lead instructor Will Vega.
SMA, located at the John B. Allard campus, is run by SCOE. The program implements a comprehensive education in a military environment that includes physical conditioning, academic studies, strict military discipline, character training, and extracurricular activities according to the academy. It is an alternative school for students who have been expelled from other schools, or who have not succeeded under a traditional classroom format.
The current scrutiny of SMA practices began after Oct. 7, when Francine Sanchez filed a complaint that the disciplinary measures against her son were too harsh and caused her son to sprain his wrist. The incident was reported to the Turlock Police Department and is under investigation, said spokesperson Officer Mayra Lewis.
The incident along with other parent complaints prompted SCOE to launch an external investigation and place SMA Principal Alberto Velarde on paid administrative leave. Judy Leitz, SCOE Communication Coordinator, said this is standard procedure.
“We brought in an external investigator because we want to know if there is any validity to the complaint just as much as anyone else,” said Leitz.
Within the last six months the Turlock Police Department has not been called to SMA to mediate fights. Prior to that, when the TPD was called it was only regarding student on student fights and none involving staff, Lewis said.
Telka Walser, the interim principal since Oct. 15, said there has been one student fight in her time at SMA.
TPD confirmed a reported sexual assault between a student and a SMA probationary instructor in the 2009-2010 school year, but the case has been relayed to the Modesto Police Department where the incident occurred. The individual has since resigned. The name of the instructor was not released.
The county is not speculating about current investigation results according to SCOE Division Director Scott Kuykendall.
“As far as the completion of the investigation, I know we’ve had someone down here actively investigating, talking with staff and appropriate individuals,” Kuykendall said. “There is no hard and fast timeline for the investigation because we want to make sure it is done thoroughly and accurately.”
Kuykendall said that the investigation will be completed in a reasonable amount of time.
Vega said he gets more compliments than complaints from parents regarding student behavior outside of the school which he says are an indication of the program’s success.
The program’s core values are discipline, respect, courage, commitment and honor.
“We want them to carry these principles off campus,” Vega said. “We go beyond what a normal program does to help these students and we believe each one has the potential to change.”
SMA students Stephanie Villegas and Luis Estrada, both 16-year old juniors who have attended SMA for the past three years, said they had never witnessed unfair treatment at the school.
Discipline is typically physical exertion such as pushups or running the field obstacle course. Sergeants do pull students aside to talk to them as well.
“It is a military style academy and some people come here and they don’t like it,” Villegas said.
Estrada echoed Villegas’ sentiment saying that at a military academy “If one person messes up, you all mess up. That’s the way this school works,” Estrada said.
The discipline is meant to address behavioral issues, not mistakes, Vega said.
“We’re here to correct defiance not mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, we are not here to punish students,” he explained.
Villegas attributes her success to the school’s drill sergeants and the ranking system and plans to reintegrate into regular public school next year.
“At first I wasn’t a very good person. I was a rebel. Coming to this school helped me change a lot. I stopped arguing, stopped getting in fights and instead took initiative to do things without being told. From there I worked my way up,” she said.
Estrada enjoys mentoring new students which shows him how far he has grown from being “that kid with the attitude,” he said.
Both students agree that the academy has the students’ best interests at heart.